Researchers at George Mason University and the Naval Research Laboratory are working to develop a solar storm early warning system to prevent a possible “internet apocalypse.”
Solar storms, also known as geomagnetic storms, occur when the sun emits bursts of energy, such as solar flares or coronal mass ejections (CME), that fling electrical charges and magnetic fields hurtling toward the earth.
When and if they reach the earth, these energized fields can cause disruptions to satellites, mobile phones, radio and GPS signals, internet connectivity, and power grids.
Most of the time, these frequently occurring solar storms cause little to no disruption to activities on Earth, thanks to the protection of the planet’s magnetic field, which deflects the solar winds.
However, scientists warn that a particularly strong solar flare or CME could someday wreak havoc on the electronic infrastructure that humans depend on today.
“The internet has come of age during a time when the sun has been relatively quiet, and now it’s entering a more active time,” Peter Becker, a professor at George Mason University, told Fox 4 KDFW. “It’s the first time in human history that there’s been an intersection of increased solar activity with our dependence on the internet and our global economic dependence on the internet.”
He warned that if a portion of a particularly large CME were to hit the earth, it could “fry” the power grid and the electronic communication and navigation systems so vital to modern society.
“… You’re talking about something that could really fry the system for a period of several weeks to months in terms of the time it would take to repair all the infrastructure – all of the electronic switches, all of these closets of electronics in all these office buildings,” Becker said. “That could all be fried. So we’re talking pretty major. And it’s not just communications. It’s economic disruption, too, obviously.”
He estimated that such a disruption could cost the U.S. economy alone $10-$20 million per day.
The strongest geomagnetic storm in recorded history was the Carrington Event, which occurred September 1-2, 1859. Its effects were seen and felt around the globe, disrupting the telegraph system and causing colorful auroras in the nighttime sky as far south as Cuba.
“It actually took out the telegraph system; sparks were literally flying off the telegraph lines,” Becker said, per Fox 4. “Some operators got electrocuted because the wires ended up carrying high voltage, which they were never supposed to do, but the magnetic field variations became so strong it almost became a generator system and drove these currents down telegraph wires.”
If a similar-strength solar storm were to impact the Earth in the 21st century, it would cause “extensive social and economic disruptions,” costing the global economy $1- 2 trillion, according to a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences.
To prevent such a global infrastructure meltdown, Becker and his team of scientists are creating an early warning system for solar weather events, which would give officials time to protect power grids and satellites from damage. Becker explained that a solar flare could reach the planet in eight minutes, with magnetic field disruptions occurring in 18 to 24 hours.
“If we have a warning, every minute counts because you can put satellites in safe mode. You can take transformers off-line from the grid, so they don’t fry,” said Becker, per Fox 4.
Becker also suggested that corporations could take measures to strengthen the infrastructure, but that would be very costly.
“And that’s, of course, an economic challenge because it’s sort of like an insurance policy. You may never need it, and it would cost trillions to really harden the system,” Becker said.